Dear Mr. Musk,
Let’s give credit where it’s due. Paypal, electric cars, space (!) — you’ve earned the title of adventurous industrialist. You’re probably used to platitudes, so let’s move on to business, specifically your current feud with the New York Times over the scathing car review of the Tesla Model S.
Everyone gets it — the car’s your baby, and if someone attacks what you love you’re going to stand up and defend against that. No one, particularly in the PR world, will fault you for responding aggressively when your company’s under fire.
Now let’s talk about how you did it. Unlike your principled defense, there’s not much love for your communications approach. You initially fired off a rather stern series of tweets attacking the Times’ reporter. Then you did the information dump to end all information dumps, producing car computer logs that you claim contradict the reporter’s accounting of the Tesla’s test drive and itinerary.
That’s where you went wrong.
First, a fundamental principle in crisis PR is that if you get stuck in a heavy explanation, you’re losing. Well, nothing is heavier than the rather complex Tesla graphs and data you produced to back up your version of events. This may appeal to data gurus, scientists, and the like — but do you really think it makes any sense at all to your consumer segment? They’re probably not going to take the time to decipher this information, and hence all they see is a loose-cannon CEO rather than a calm and collected response. In fact, here’s a graph that represents how well your approach is working:
Second, if you’re insisting the facts are on your side, there’s a much, much, much easier way you could have handled — and crushed — the reporter’s review (and even have some fun in the process). You could have simply made a mini-documentary, probably under 10 minutes long (with a fuller version as well), of you driving the same route under the same conditions, vindicating the Tesla’s performance. As you can see, this would put a human face on the response instead of a bunch of complex charts, creating easily shareable social media and online content, and giving everyone the clearest and strongest view of your position.